The universe's most distant and ancient galaxies are about to be brought into focus. At the Keck Observatory in Hawaii, a multi-university team of researchers has just installed a very sophisticated infrared sensor in the Keck I telescope.
The MOSFIRE (Multi-Object Spectrometer for Infra-Red Exploration) is a five-ton, $14 million device. Ian S. McLean, a UCLA physics and astronomy professor, and Charles Steidel, an Astronomy Professor at the California Institute of Technology, built the device over the course of seven years with the help of nearly two dozen grad students and faculty members.
Infrared sensors allow astronomers to peer through dust clouds to observe cosmic bodies and ancient galaxies, detecting light that has red-shifted as the universe has expanded. Specifically, the MOSFIRE will study the period of reionization, about 400,000 years after the Big Bang. "The instrument was designed to study the most distant, faintest galaxies," McLean said in a press release.
"When we look at the most distant galaxies, we see them not as they are now, but as they were when the light left them, that is just now arriving here. Some of the galaxies that we are studying were formed some 10 billion years ago - only a few billion years after the Big Bang. We are looking back in time to the era of the formation of some of the very first galaxies... an era that we need to study if we are going to understand the large-scale structure of the universe," McLean said.
In addition to distant galaxies and black holes, researchers hope to use the MOSFIRE's sensitive eye to observe star formations here in the Milky Way and study the distribution of dark matter. With that much to do, the MOSFIRE is capable of surveying up to 46 objects at a time and rapidly switching targets—taking minutes and hours instead of days.
Following testing and evaluation in May and June, the MOSFIRE is expected to be up and running by this September.
Photo courtesy of Keck Obervatory